One constant of High Holy Day services for many–if not most–Jews is wondering whether we’re doing it right. Even for those of us who attend synagogue regularly, weekly Shabbat services are only so much help.
Sure, the core of every Jewish service contains the same prayers and blessings. But those hours of liturgical additions and insertions, completely different nusach (melodies), and for the Reform movement, a machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook) that’s three decades out of date, read mostly in English, and totally different than our 2000s era siddur (regular prayerbook) we use the rest of the year? Surprise, twice-a-year-Reform Jews, you are rarely the only people afraid that others will realize you’re lost in the desert of an HHD service.
Or wondering why the clergy are dressed in funky white robes like a demented Diana Ross and the Supremes tribute troupe.
(Also for you Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Jews, it’s worth noting that the rest of the year–when you never show up–most Reform shuls use a totally updated, easy-to-follow siddur with same-page Hebrew, translation, and transliteration and gender-neutral God language. No, really. See how long it’s been?)
For Jews-by-Choice (read: converts), though, that lost feeling is somewhat familiar. We all go through it during the conversion process, as we sit in shul for the first time, learn prayers in an unfamiliar language, and make our first forays into PDJs–Public Displays of Judaism–like wearing kippot or tallitot, saying brachot, going up to the bima for the first time to say Torah blessings, or (shudder) actually carrying a Torah around the sanctuary.
Shortly after becoming officially Jewish in spring 2011, my community’s clergy and I talked about scheduling my semi-official “coming out” service. It’s our synagogue’s custom for new converts to speak at a Friday evening Shabbat service about their journey–an evening that also includes our first hakafah (Torah procession) and aliyah (trip up to the bima to say blessings before and after readings from the Torah), and an affirmation of our new Hebrew name. But it was a crowded summer service-wise, so my Shabbos wouldn’t be able to happen for several weeks.
Plenty of time to practice.
And then I spent the weekend at my congregation’s annual Memorial Day retreat at OSRUI, the Reform movement’s overnight youth camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. (Famed as the birthplace of Jane Wiedlin, as anyone who owns the Totally Go-Go’s 1981 concert video can attest.) During our OSRUI retreats, we daven daily. During morning prayers on my first full day there, my cantor invited me in front of the congregation to come up and say my first Torah blessings.
Like, out loud? In front of everyone? In Hebrew? On pitch?
I thought fast and did what any nervous JBC would do. I immediately invited another JBC to come up with me. You won’t be surprised to know neither one of us was thrilled with the invitation, but we made it through–a bit fitfully but we did it. And to the applause and Shehecheyanu prayer of fellow congregants, I realized I had just stole my own thunder.
At least I had my first hakafah to be march knee-knockingly through on “coming out” day.
And then I was asked to participate in our annual men’s service. Every year my shul’s Brotherhood men’s auxiliary leads a lay service to celebrate the group’s contributions to community life. I was asked to do the hakafah, but I’m sure you got there already. Our clergy allowed me to do a practice run with what turned out to be our heaviest Torah scroll so I’d be prepared.
Boy, was I. My clearest memory of that first hakafah was clergy pointedly telling–if not begging–me, “Not so fast!” From watching for a year, I knew the hakafah route around our Sanctuary by heart. I should have been more mindful about the whole “It’s not a race to the bimah” part.
So by the time my “official” turn came later last summer, I was pretty prepared. No less nervous. But prepared.
It would take many more trips to the bimah and a lot more time with my arms wrapped around a Torah for any of that to feel second-nature. Now when I go to the bimah, I love singing the brachot loudly and in the best Hebrew accent that my months of Ulpan classes and Pimsleur recordings can muster. (At one point this year, my rabbi paused before reading the Torah, turned to me, and told me I had an Israeli accent.) Even more, I love being on the bima and cradling the Torah in my arms on a Saturday morning between the Torah and Haftorah readings. It’s a pose that feels so incredible right to me, and I’m always sad when I have to let it go.
But I had to start somewhere. Where are you starting today, amid these ongoing Yamim Nora’im? Beginnings are always hard.
But imagine where you’re going to end up. Shabbat Shalom.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.